When the call came for volunteers for the Commonwealth Monitoring Force in Rhodesia at the end of 1979, I knocked on my commanding officer’s door with my passport in my hand. Implementing a ceasefire was not active service, but opportunities to get an inch of glory were few and far between. We were greeted by the Poms at Salisbury airport with a malarial pill, before being whisked away and literally locked in some old Rhodesian light infantry barracks. Typical Australians, we mooed like cows and glared at the British military policeman at the gate. It was great to be trusted, and we felt like scapegoats of the empire all over again, a little like the story of Breaker Morant in the Boer war. Furthermore that night, it all seemed a bit unreal to be given British radios and codes that we did not know how to use. None the less, Sergeant Peter King and I deployed early the next morning by British helicopter.
The pilot was positively nervous as he furtively looked for low strung wires. Peter and I were blissfully ignorant and we enjoyed the ride until we found ourselves dumped in a paddock beside the little country town of Marandellas. There was nothing else to do but squat on our packs and wait until the Rhodesian unit we were responsible for monitoring arrived about an hour later. In the intervening time we mused about loading magazines on our weapons, despite orders to the contrary. When we were finally picked up, the vehicles practised their counter ambush drills just before leaving the town. We simply looked at each other and our magazines never left our weapons for the next two months.
We were based in the small village of Mahsekwa in the middle of the Chiota Tribal Trust Land where the psychological operations unit had been for several months. It was an infantry company of black soldiers with white officers, all cross-trained in communication skills. Back in town a few days later we met up with some Coldstream Guardsmen, who formed our next higher monitoring organisation. Strangely, we developed far greater rapport with the Rhodesians than we did with the Poms. They acted as if we were also from one of their colonies, but it was probably just their uppity Guard’s mannerisms. Southern Rhodesia had reverted to being a colony again and the governor simply invested the extant security forces with a law and order, policing role. Effectively the company I was with continued counter-insurgency operations right up to the day of the elections.
Not long after we arrived, the company regrouped and we moved to a nearby-ransacked school for the seven-day rendezvous period in which the ZANLA and ZIPRA guerrilla armies were supposed to come out of the bush. It was very much a waiting game and except for being the judging of a drill competition between the platoons of the company and turned guerrillas from the local Spirit of the People paramilitary unit, there was little else to do but play cards. It was an eye opener to me to hear my first shot fired, only to discover after standing to that it was a soldier having a nightmare, for which his sergeant punched him back to sleep. Shortly after we returned to our village, a large convoy of open cattle trucks containing over five hundred guerrillas stopped immediately beside our fortified compound. Their British escorts were check-navigating enroute to an assembly area, but they could not have picked a more dangerous place to stop. As the guerrillas and soldiers exchanged invectives, we hurriedly conversed to get the British on the road again. It could easily have turned into a bloodbath.
The company commander was Mike Boaler and he was an experienced soldier. Surprisingly the Rhodesians were using the Australian Army’s counter-insurgency tactics pamphlet to guide their operations, and he questioned me intensely on our techniques and procedures. In one instance he asked me to plan a cordon and sweep. In the next month there was a succession of contacts and sightings as the terrorists maintained a presence in the trust land and adjacent European farming areas in the lead up to the elections. No day was the same, but about once a week we would go into Marandellas to report. When in town, it also became our habit to go to the local Monkey Inn for several beers and to mix with the local Rhodesians. The bush war was costing over one million dollars a day and their society was in total disarray, all eagerly awaiting an end to the war to allow business to continue uninterrupted.
Mike Boaler himself was now a Salisbury businessman keen to put his war experiences behind him. The evenings in Mahsekwa took on a familiar pattern, as the compound was adjacent to both the local police station and the trust land’s farming cooperative. Each agency took its turn to invite the others for a meal and a game of cards. Grasshoppers, freshly live fried by an old African cook, were a speciality although the local brew resembling an alcoholic milkshake was an acquired taste. About halfway through the deployment, I also spent three days at Victoria Falls. The casino was in full operation as tourists mingled at the gaming tables with soldiers from the nearby artillery battery. It was incongruous situation that had developed with a conventional ZIPRA army poised to strike from across the Zambesi River.
As a young lieutenant, I was eager to experience as much action as I could when a number of guerrillas handed themselves in. In the first instance a very frightened local from a kraal line about half an hour away delivered a note from Superman, Hitler and G3 who were staying in his kraal. These were cover names for their real identities, and Mike Boaler suspected an ambush. That night he deployed his company around the kraal line and shortly after first light Peter King and myself drove down to the kraal in the Special Branch landrover. As we walked the last one hundred metres, the guerrillas stepped out onto the road just like at Okay Corral. As usual the leader would not speak English and we were invited into the farmer’s hut to finish breakfast with his petrified family.
A long journey followed on the open tray of the landrover as we drove them into the Marandellas police station. We were slightly more relaxed after we coaxed the guerrillas to remove the rockets from their launchers. The second occasion was not nearly as easy. We were woken late at night by a truck careering through the village with drunken guerrillas in the back. When we got to it, armed soldiers had surrounded it in the front of the police station. The terrorists refused to dismount and so another cold night followed as Peter and I joined them on the drive into town, where once again with difficulty I managed to convince them to hand over their weapons to the police. I took a liking to their strong tobacco. It was a good way of winning rapport to share a smoke, and something to do on the journeys.
Contact Jim Truscott about this article.